Out-of-state students bring change to Tuscaloosa

A variety of restaurants arrive in Tuscaloosa to match the growing out-of-state student population.

By Laura Pilat
News Reporter

The key is real amoroso bread, which holds sliced pieces of steak painted in Cheese Wiz and accessorized with sautéed onions. Matt Tanner was raised to appreciate the art of cheesesteaks since his family grew up in Philadelphia. His uncles had become successful in their own business selling the popular food, and he was inspired to try his luck on the product once he moved to Alabama.

Tanner opened Philly Boyz Cheesesteaks in Tuscaloosa five months ago after noticing a demand for the product. The idea seemed possible after buying the old location of Tut’s Place on the University Strip. He noticed that 55 percent of their sales came from cheesesteaks alone. The restaurant brings a variety to the city and adds something new for people to try, he said.

“We are a northern brand in the South,” Tanner said. “We’ve gotten a handful of people that swear by it being just like Philly.”

Philly’s is one of the many restaurants accommodating the need for diverse options. The amount of out-of-state students has influenced the type of restaurants available in the city.

In the last 15 years, the student enrollment at the University of Alabama has doubled, with a total of 38,563 students. According to the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, this increase in students can be seen with out-of-state students since they have increased around 35 percent since 2007. They now represent 60 percent of the student body.

Neal Wade, director of The University of Alabama Economic Development Academy, said one of the strategies of the university is to attract out-of-state students. He said this could be accomplished when prospective students hear positive feedback about what is offered in the downtown area.

The Chamber used input from a student survey in order to help decide which restaurants should be recruited in the Tuscaloosa region. They were able to get an idea from out-of-state students about preferred restaurants that are not typically in the Southeast like Cookout and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

“I want a diversity of the type of restaurants, but also a diversity of the cost to go to them,” Wade said. “I want higher end ones, some medium and lower priced options so that there is a diversity in the kind of restaurants, but also give you a good experience for the cost of it as well.”

He said having a variety of restaurants shows how progressive a community is, and how they are able to attract name brands into the area. It’s an important issue not just for the students, but also for the entire community because it helps the image of the area.

Cities still need to be practical when balancing the type of restaurants, he said. Restaurant chains uncommonly located in the South are not likely to expand to Tuscaloosa unless they are looking at other locations in this region as well. A more realistic strategy would be to look for a restaurant that offers similar options.

Every May the Chamber attends the International Conference of Shopping Centers. Alan Spencer, the vice president of economic development and public policy for the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, compares the national show to speed dating between restaurants and possible locations. Around 30,000 people attend the event each year, and the chamber tries to schedule meetings with brands that we don’t necessarily have in our market.

Last year, the Chamber talked to around 100 different restaurant concepts at the convention, he said. Then they follow-up with leads by setting up appointments where they could explain why it would be beneficial to have a location in the Tuscaloosa region.

Spencer said that there are two parts when looking at the economic development recruitment. For the Tuscaloosa region, they look at what restaurants would fit into the market based on the periodic surveys. Next, the restaurant chains do research of their own looking for any possible competitors they might have in the area, the average household income, and the eating habits of the residents.

“The fact that you are growing the student base is one part that you are selling to them,” Wade said.

The shortage of a type of restaurant is why the Chamber reached out to Chuy’s Tex-Mex. According to Spencer, they identified this restaurant as an option because they realized there was a strong demand since a large portion of out-of-state students are from the West.

Last year, more people spent money eating out than they did buying groceries, he said. Then you overlay that with how students eat and the activities that bring people into town as well.

According to the Student Shopping Patterns report by the Chamber, the total student spending in a year is around $385 million, not including the money spent on campus.

“Downtown Tuscaloosa has significantly transformed itself in the last few years with more restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. that not only cater to student population but also to the residents of Tuscaloosa,” said Ahmad Iijaz, the executive director and director of economic forecasting. “Overall employment in Tuscaloosa retailing sector has remained flat over the last 12 months, but the restaurants have added jobs and show a positive growth in employment.”